Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/30/05 02:27:41

"Lopez! Luketic! And... Fonda? How did she get mixed up in this mess?"
1 stars (Sucks)

I have become convinced that Jane Fonda’s decision to star in the dreadfully unfunny J-Lo comedy “Monster-In-Law” was among the shrewdest business decisions of her career. Think about it: had she chosen a serious film (say, “Elizabethtown,” which she eventually turned down) for her first screen work since 1990, critics and audiences everywhere might have been brutal in their analysis. Does she still have the chops? Is her comeback work it? But to make her grand return in some throwaway romcom that nobody likes, well, sir, that’s smarts. Now, aside from a brief “oh, she’s back,” everyone’s too busy mocking the film itself to be bothered with putting her under the microscope.

Well, it’s either that, or someone made one lousy judgment call.

Yes, “Monster-In-Law” gives us Fonda in her long-awaited return to acting, but it’s actually more notable as being the worst film to date from Robert Luketic, the director who’s previous films (“Legally Blonde” and “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!”) show him pushing for a career in complete, unforgivable hackery. With “Monster-In-Law,” Luketic’s name officially becomes a warning sign, an alarm sent off during the opening credits announcing that it’s going to be nothing but crap for the next 90-105 minutes.

Bring Jennifer Lopez into the mix, and you know you’re in for trouble. Yes, this one’s among the ranks of the absolute worst J-Lo junkers - somewhere better than “Enough” and “Gigli,” worse than “Maid In Manhattan” and “The Wedding Planner,” although really, at this level, it’s all just a matter of splitting hairs, isn’t it? Once again, Lopez does little but plow through the material with the same lifeless gee-I-hope-my-charm-can-make-this-lousy-material-work attitude. We know Lopez can act - visit her early film roles for proof - but she’s been so content to sleepwalk her way through these generic romcoms and dopey dramas that she’s simply not to be trusted with starring in movies anymore.

And then there’s Michael Vartan, famous from “Alias,” whose role here is that of plot filler. He gets the two leading ladies together, then moves out of the picture, popping in from time to time merely to advance the story. Vartan’s character is so incredibly dull and useless in this film that he could have been replaced with a baked potato and the charisma levels would have remained more or less the same. (You’d think the makers of a romantic comedy would be interested, even if ever so slightly, in some sort of chemistry between the couple at story’s center. But that would suggest the makers of this romantic comedy knew what they were doing.)

Rounding out the cast, we find Wanda Sykes, the gifted comic whose talents are once again wasted on some dumbass role of the wisecracking assistant/maid/what have you. (Here, she’s “assistant.”) Here’s an idea: give Sykes the lead, and stick J-Lo with the crummy one-liners.

So what lame-brained comedy brings these stars together? A cheap rerun of “Guess Who,” which was a cheap rerun of “Meet the Parents,” which wasn’t any good in the first place. Boy meets girl, boy brings girl home to meet mom, mom and girl hate each other, boy disappears for most of the film, mom and girl fight, boy and girl get married, the end. Written by newcomer Anya Kochoff, the screenplay drops every conceivable sitcommy situation in our laps, as the Lopez and Fonda characters scheme to ruin each others’ lives.

Which means, of course, yawn. We’ve seen all of this before, and “Monster-In-Law” offers nothing new, nothing at all, not one single thing, to make another go at this kind of story worth watching. Not even the late arrival of Elaine Stritch (playing - you guessed it - Fonda’s own cranky mother-in-law, har har) can save the day. Jokes here involve backstabbings that are, I assume, intended to be hilarious, but actually do little more than play as a checklist of things done in what nice people believe black comedy might be. I can see Kockoff and Luketic, nice people both, I’m sure, sitting at the pitch meeting, tittering as they explain how Lopez sneaks a sleeping pill into Fonda’s drink, and how Fonda tricks Lopez into answering questions about her sexual history, and isn’t that just so crazy? This is a film that needs an intense, unadulterated nastiness, but it’s being made by people whose idea of nasty is to have a mom who’s not too nice to her son’s girlfriend. It’s made by the kind of people who giggle at the idea of having Jennifer Lopez make fun of somebody for being married too many times.

It is very poorly written, to be sure. The entire first act of the film could have been dumped with little loss - at least “Guess Who” knew to start the story with the meeting of mean parent and flustered future in-law; “Monster-In-Law” gives us long, unwatchable exposition detailing how the two younger characters meet, hook up, fall in love, etc. We don’t need this. It’s boring, it’s pointless, it’s unnecessary. Get on with it.

And then comes the issue of mom hating the fiancé. Why the hate? The Lopez character does nothing to upset, offend, or otherwise put off the Fonda character, and yet she is met with instant scorn. Which means that either we’re supposed to think that Fonda’s character is pure evil and must be hated immediately (which negates the snuggly ending in which we’re asked to like her, despite the rest of the film), or the script was too lazy to figure out how to advance the plot, leaving everyone to simply say “screw it” and move on quickly, hoping nobody would notice too much.

Of course, Kochoff does not get the entire brunt of the blame here. Luketic brings nothing to his role as director; he just pushes the action forward with as little creative force as possible, all in the name of churning out a studio quickie. (Hence, the “hack” tag.) The cast, meanwhile, remain content with their dreadful material, willing to push this product through with the minimum effort required. Slap it all together, and you’ve got the makings of one royally uninspired comedy and utterly generic Hollywood mess.

A final thought. Lopez’ character is named Charlie. You may have noticed that too many romantic comedies give their female leads male nicknames - Charlie, Andy, Alex, etc. Why is this? Are romcom writers too lazy to think up names from more than one gender? Or do they think this is cute or hip? No matter the reason: if you are the writer of a romantic comedy, cut it out. We get it. J-Lo is “Charlie.” Kate Hudson is an “Andy.” That’s fine. Now stop it. Unless you’re willing to cast Hugh Grant as “Betty” or John Cusack as “Jenny,” you’re not allowed to do this any more.

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